Coal miner's son

How reverent can you get?

Colick doesn't just compress and simplify the material--he melodramatizes it. The most egregious example comes when Homer's dad is injured during a rescue mission at a cave-in, and the wide-screen, fictional Homer leaves school to become a miner and support the family. (He can't expect his jock-hero brother to give up a college football scholarship.) This kind of invention dampens the euphoria and cheapens the material. The filmmakers seem to get down on their knees and beg on Homer's behalf for the audience's allegiance. This is not to say that Colick should merely have transcribed the book. Actually, he might have come up with a more authentic film if he'd fictionalized it more.

In The Last American Hero (1973), Lamont Johnson filmed a real-life saga based on stock-car champion Junior Johnson that was just as valiant and full of beans as Rocket Boys. But he took pains to complicate the story and add shadows to the ethical landscape; he turned it into a morally booby-trapped, ultra-contemporary fable--less "good" but more "true." By contrast, the October Sky filmmakers reorganize and alter incidents to create cut-rate catharses and to keep the action PG-clean and free of controversy. Nobody in the film reminds an immigrant welder (Elya Baskin) who helps the boys that Wernher von Braun worked for the Nazis. And if the movie has jukebox classics like "That'll Be The Day" on the sound track, at heart it's far more country than rock and roll.

Homer's sexual and romantic yearnings amount to his realizing that he should pin his hopes on the girl who loves him, not his unreachable dream date; in the book, at least he lost his virginity. While there's plenty of coal dust onscreen, there's not enough of the book's homey funk. The film could use an incident like Homer's mom slipping when she goes out for heating coal in her night clothes and deciding to freeze rather than reveal her body to the dawn mine shift. Homer may still clash with his football-playing brother and divide his dad against his mother (who yearns to leave the coal land and move to Myrtle Beach), but the film's sentimentality softens the conflicts. And the pseudo-tenderness undermines the actors.

The script cedes the characters' interior lives to the group dynamics; all they seem to need is each other's sympathy. Whenever anyone does anything "out of character"--like Dern's super-nice Miss Riley snubbing Homer in the hallway when he decides to drop out of school--it's jarring rather than intriguing. The movie ends with scraps of real home movies of the actual people. They leave you with the father not as a stubborn scowler who must melt for his son but as a gallant figure in his own right, dying a slow death because of the growing spot on his lung. Maybe it's the story's blend of outer space and fatherly sacrifice, but the shots of this elusive man in a fedora remind me of John Updike's dad in The Centaur, who in death finds an honored place in a constellation, though "few living mortals cast their eyes respectfully toward Heaven, and fewer still sit as students to the stars." The flickering black-and-white images are so suggestive and powerful that they momentarily wipe out your memory of Hickam's movie father.

October Sky.
Directed by Joe Johnston. Written by Lewis Colick, from Rocket Boys: A Memoir by Homer H. Hickam Jr. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper, Laura Dern, Chris Owen, William Lee Scott, and Chad Lindberg. Opens Friday.

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